Friday, 2 May 2014

The Tumble: overrated

The Tumble. Apparently the mecca of South Wales cycling, the spiritual home of hill climbing, the closest alpine ascent we've got. No wonder that the Tour of Britain will be finish on it in 2014. There's even a charity event where you can spend all day riding up and down it.

Pah! The Tumble is vastly overrated. It might be a relatively hard climb, but its not the best climb in South Wales. Here's five reasons why:

1. 10% for 6km? Ahem. At best, Strava gives 9% over 4.9km, or 8% for 5km. So its tough, but lets not exaggerate things. Moreover, the summit is in the wrong place. Really, the top of the climb is further on up the lane to the left of the summit which then descends down towards Llanover. There's a bit more climbing to do, but its not exactly steep. But then neither is pretty much the last kilometre of the main climb - its big ringable stuff. Maybe the climb is more like 3km at 10% - half of those official signs - but who'd be excited about that? Its hardly alpine territory.

2. The view. Where is it? Most of the climb - the steepest part - is along a hedgelined straight road. It feels claustrophobic and tedious, but it doesn't have the mystique of the forest section on Mont Ventoux. The lack of view makes uninspiring, a grind. Once over the cattle grid and out onto the moor things improve slightly. But for the most part the view is always behind you, and to the left there's no sense that you are scaling a high peak: there are no high craggy outcrops, scree slopes or cliff faces. The view back over the Usk valley from the top is good, but this comes at the start of the descent when you probably want to be concentrating on something else.

3. The road surface. Aargh. Not quite the Arenberg, but nowhere near the smooth slopes of a Tour de France climb. Again, the steepest bottom section is worst, or pretty much all of it when descending (see next point). If this is supposed to be the highlight of riding in Wales, lets have a decent road surface.

4. The descent. What descent? All good climbs need to go somewhere (see next point), but the descent to Blaenavon is innocuous and uneventful. If you want a good descent you need to turn around and go back the way you came (or use the lesser known narrow lanes down to Llanover - but that's less fun). Of the Tumble descent, its fast and dangerous, which some people may like. Personally, I'd prefer to go fast without taking too many risks, or as one Strava segment names the descent; "grow some balls". The cambering of the bends towards the top creates a kind of roller coaster effect as you straightline them. Towards the bottom, there's no room for error with the road hemmed in by hedges. The road surface doesnt help and makes braking for the bottom hairpin tricky. Incidentally, all good climbs/descents need a good hairpin. The Tumble has one, but its impossibly tight and steep that it makes it neither enjoyable going up or down.

5. The destination. Have you been to Blaenavon? Actually its a world heritage site, home to the industrial revolution. The road is also quite an important route through to Pontypool which means its busy and not ideal for cyclists. But for cyclists the road doesn't really go anywhere: it doesnt link up to any other climbs. You can cut across to Brynmawr, or head back down towards Newport: either direction isn't particularly exciting. There's no secondary climb which would make the Tumble even tougher. Perhaps you could say the same of Ventoux, but at least with Ventoux the other side also offers another stiff test. The Tumble's asymmetry lets it down.

So what alternatives are there? Here's 3 choices:

1. Llangynidr Mountain. Personally I much prefer the climb up Llangynidr to the Tumble. The north face is 8% for 4.1kms, so not far off Tumble steepness. It has a view all the way up. It has a hairpin. And it has a proper descent, which you can climb back up. You could also ride over to the Tumble if you wanted. Im wondering why I didnt ride up it myself.

2. Bwlch/Rhigos/Maerdy. This is the classic combination. Bwlch, Rhigos and then Maerdy Mountain. The first two are less steep than the Tumble, coming in at around 5%. But they have hairpins, good road surfaces, a sense of being in the mountains and a view. Maerdy is even steeper. Coming out of Aberdare, it averages 9% over 3ks. The quick combination of these climbs make this ride pretty tough.

3. Ferndale - Llanwonno. Finally, my current favourite is the climb out of Ferndale to Llanwonno. Its only a narrow lane, but starts off with two alpinesque hairpins, the first with a huge retaining wall reminiscent of something you'd see on Alpe D'huez. The climb is in fits and starts, but you get a great view as you rise over the valley's communities below. Rows and rows of terraced housing are visible across the valley, the morning sun picking out the range of different colours. Its a great view. Then there's a technical but fun descent down through Llanwonno and either back to Pontypridd or to Ynysbwl. If you added this on to the back of the Bwlch/Rhigos and Maerdy, that would be some ride.